You’re playing a game of Standard with Abzan Aggro and your opponent casts a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy off an Island and Canopy Vista. On your turn 3, do you cast your Anafenza or Dromoka’s Command to pump your Sylvan Advocate and kill Jace?
Is one scenario easier to answer than the other? I’d argue that the Legacy problem is much more straightforward than the Standard one. In Legacy, if you cast Stoneforge and your opponent is playing a turn-2 combo deck like Storm, you’ll die before you untap. In this spot, you clearly should cast Thalia since it could prevent you from losing the game and also might win the game on the spot.
In Standard, the rest of your hand matters a lot more because the game will go on for awhile. Usually, it’s correct to just kill Jace turn 2, but maybe your hand is double Dromoka’s Command. In such a spot, it’s better to get ahead on the board so that you can cast two removal spells turn 4. On top of that, given the scenario I described, it’s impossible to tell if your opponent is playing 4-Color Rally or Bant Company. The Jaces in Rally are more threatening, and you don’t have as much information to come up with a clear right line.
The point here is that information is derived based on the speed of the format. In Modern, if my opponent plays turn-1 Copperline Gorge and passes, I assume Living End. If it’s an Inkmoth Nexus, I assume Infect (or a horrible Affinity hand, but I think that hand is so bad you can rule it out). Eye of Ugin into 4 Eldrazi Mimics to set up a turn-2 kill? Okay, maybe that’s too much information.
When you receive enough information to know what matchup you’re playing against, you need to immediately sculpt a plan. Are you the beatdown? What 2-drop do you cast? Should you fetch and shock yourself turn 1, or do you need to get a basic to preserve life/play around a Blood Moon? Your opponent will also be contemplating these types of questions so it’s important to take it a step further. If your opponent leads with Inkmoth Nexus and is on Infect, what type of hand did they keep? It’s very likely one without any Noble Hierarch or Glistener Elf. If on turn 2 your opponent then plays a land without a Blighted Agent, their hand must be setting up for a flurry of pump spells and likely has many interactive spells as well, or why else would they keep such a hand? Understanding what your opponent is planning helps you to create a better plan for yourself. PV went further into this in his excellent latest article that I highly recommend if you haven’t checked it out yet.
As formats slow down, you’ll have more time to gather information. But that time is incredibly important because you’ll need to collect many less important data points rather than one or two important ones. This makes games less about full information understood very quickly to ones where clues are uncovered that allow you to act on better and better information later in the game. Here’s a simple Paint graphic I made to demonstrate this idea:
By turn 1 or 2 in Legacy and Modern, you know what your opponent is playing and are adopting a game plan. Standard starts more slowly, just like in the “kill Jace?” debate we looked at earlier. Later in the game when you have information, your decisions are much more informed. Where things get even trickier are in games of Limited.
As you can see, there’s little information gained in the first few turns, other than the colors your opponent is playing and whether or not they’re curving out. Where information is really gained is in the midgame. It’s at this point that you can start to pinpoint a range of cards your opponent could be holding despite the fact that you are unsure of the exact cards in their deck.
Maybe your opponent has played a few Islands and Mountains but nothing else. Has your opponent played a few defense-oriented creatures like Fortified Rampart or Ancient Crab? Did your opponent make a strange attack that indicates a combat trick, or damage-based spells like Reality Hemorrhage or Tar Snare? Each of these instances provide context for your opponent’s plan and the types of cards they’re holding in hand. With the defensive creatures, you can expect a flyers game plan, or one looking to take over the late game with back-breaking spells. Against your UR opponent, you can expect a flurry of spells after turn 4 because of their slow start and the fact that surge payoffs like Pyromancer’s Assault encourage waiting if possible.
Deciphering how your opponent attacked or blocked can narrow down the range of tricks they have. Did your GW opponent’s Kor Scythemaster attack into your Cyclone Sire while their Shadow Glider stayed behind? If so, Make a Stand, Lead by Example, and Vines of the Recluse are much more likely than larger tricks like Lithomancer’s Focus or Mighty Leap. Once you can put your opponent on a narrower range of cards like these, you can decide how to respond. If you have no way to beat a trick, just block. If you have a Tar Snare in hand but need to untap before you can cast it, consider waiting to retrick next turn and get a nice 2-for-1. As turns go by in a game of Limited, these types of scenarios appear more and more frequently and you can begin to form a clearer picture of where the game is headed and how you can position yourself to take advantage of that information.
Once you know what you’re fighting, you can start to plan on how you’ll fight it. The quicker you are able to gather information, the larger the chunks you’ll gather it in. Be aware of what your opponent plays and the sequencing of their cards. Their plays might seem unconventional at times, but they can provide key context to prevent you from making a mistake in a strange scenario. Above all, make sure you are thinking about the game’s progression so that you’ll always be one step ahead.